I had just moved to New Orleans and was at a second line when I first saw a Baby Doll. She was dressed in a blue satin dress, dancing away, as the second line approached a stop. A pristine image in what seemed like organized chaos. A Helen of Troy in the middle of a rolling block party. The sight seemed so out of place, with men standing on Ford pickups, others burning rubber with their ATVs and motorcycles, other men riding horses under the overpass. Yet there stood this African American woman, in a blue satin dress, staring proudly, dancing beautifully and looking as if she felt better than anyone else there. As if she belonged more than anyone else.
When researching Mardi Gras Indians, one has a plethora of articles, books and documentaries at their disposal. When you research the Baby Dolls, a couple of articles will appear from local papers, most of them post-2005. But only one book comes up. The book is “The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition” by Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville. I met Dr. Vaz-Deville at her office at Xavier University where we discussed the Baby Dolls.
Dr. Vaz-Deville believes that the Baby Dolls tradition was started by sex workers in “Black Storyville” in the early 20th century. While not everyone subscribes to this origin, she “think[s] there is more evidence that it started with women that were prostitutes” than with any other theory.
For Dr. Vaz-Deville, the Baby Dolls were something beautiful that was created in New Orleans by African American women. Her interpretation is that “New Orleans allowed for a space, a public space, for disenfranchised groups to express themselves.” She said that “African memory of costuming with the European custom, that became the New Orleans custom, of Mardi Gras masking within ritual space” contributed to the Baby Dolls performances during carnival.
"This is something that comes from way back." — Tee-Eva
“So they used that, even though they were incredibly disenfranchised women, as a way to say `we may be segregated and thought of in one way, but we think of ourselves in a very different way´,” said Dr. Vaz-Deville. “And to draw esteem, and use themselves as a benchmark and a standard for aesthetics, performance and self-esteem, is pretty radical.”
I met Dianne “Gumbo Marie” Honoré at Café Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street one Saturday morning. She is the definition of a woman-about-town. Honoré helms numerous projects telling stories about New Orleans and she knew nearly every person in the café.
Honoré is the leader of the group The Black Storyville Baby Dolls. Like Dr. Vaz-Deville, she believes there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that the Baby Dolls were started by sex workers. The main aspect of the Black Storyville Baby Dolls is “to preserve the history, and to educate people as to what they really are, and to where they came from. And to pay homage to the first women who were Baby Dolls in 1912.”
Honoré speaks of her ancestry often. It is a big part of who she is as a person. The ancestors of the Baby Dolls contribute greatly to their practice (as well as in New Orleans in general). She told me “[The ancestors] helped to make Mardi Gras what it is today. And the things that people are so drawn to are the things that they were the very essence of. So it’s an honor for me to be able to do it.”
The Baby Dolls have seen an uptick in people joining since Hurricane Katrina hit. Honoré thinks this is positive, though she does find the original story being lost even amongst those who have been Baby Dolls most of their lives. She told me she thinks “the story is changing. I want at least the original story to be what it was. We can express however we want today, but someone has got to tell the original story.”
Honoré stresses that the Black Storyville Baby Dolls will not be just educational. They had an event at Prime Example Jazz Club this past November and Honoré would love to do an event a month. Last year, they spent their Mardi Gras day dancing in front of Kermit’s Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge and hanging out with the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe. As is written on their Facebook page, “We show up and show out in our satin!”
I met “Tee-Eva” Perry at her store Tee-Eva’s Pies & Pralines on Magazine Street. Tee-Eva has a bunch of pictures and paintings decorating the walls showing off her exploits as a Baby Doll. From Tootie Montana’s funeral to benefits such as one trying to save Big Charity, Tee-Eva’s walls reflect a storied life. She told me that she keeps all these photos to help her remember and she told me her story by pointing out a picture and explaining the history of that moment in time for her.
Tee-Eva started being a Baby Doll in 2005. She joined the K-Doe Baby Dolls, who wanted to preserve the name of the late Ernie K-Doe. Tee-Eva glowed when talking about all the things she had done as a Baby Doll. Her daughter and great granddaughter are both members of the K-Doe Baby Dolls. She told me “I think it’s wonderful being a Baby Doll…Lots of people love to take pictures with you. They love the outfits you have on.”
Tee-Eva believes in what is the most popular origin story of the Baby Dolls that is not related to sex workers. She believes that Miriam Baptiste’s family started the tradition many years ago. According to Tee-Eva, “They didn’t have nothing to do on Mardi Gras day. Everybody be going out and they would be at home. So, they decide they would get dressed and they would go out dressed like Baby Dolls.”
Tee-Eva is “very honored because this is something that comes from way back…and it’s nice to be able to remember things that they did back in the day as Baby Dolls and you can keep up and bring it forward, so your grandchildren can be [connected to what was done] back in the day.”
Tee-Eva takes great pride in the communal work that her group does. She equates the Baby Dolls to social aid and pleasure clubs, in how they helped people in the community that were in need. Tee-Eva said, “That’s really our cause, in being a Baby Doll. It’s a calling, in helping people. People helping people.”
The Baby Dolls are maintaining a beautiful tradition that has been carried on by strong women of color for a very long time. It is a unique practice, steeped in New Orleans’ DNA via people who have practiced and participated in the act for generations, making the Baby Dolls a fun and integral part of New Orleans Mardi Gras. From the beautiful outfits to the dances, the events, the history and the communal work, the Baby Dolls exemplify the beauty of New Orleans in as pretty a way as possible.
Photo by Kim Vaz-Deville
You can follow Ms. Tee-Eva’s Old Fashioned Pies & Pralines at tee-evapralines.com.